Anansi’s Gold is the astounding, never-before-told story of how an audacious Ghanaian con artist pulled off one of the 20th century’s longest-running and most spectacular international frauds.
When Ghana won its independence from Britain in 1957, it instantly became a target for home-grown opportunists and rapacious Western interests determined to snatch any assets that colonialism hadn’t already stripped. A CIA-funded military junta ousted the new nation’s inspiring president, Kwame Nkrumah, then falsely accused him of hiding the country’s gold overseas.
Born into poverty in Ghana and trained in the United States, John Ackah Blay-Miezah declared himself custodian of this fictitious Ghanaian trust fund, the Oman Ghana Trust Fund, worth billions. You, too, could claim a piece—if only you would “invest” in Blay-Miezah’s efforts.
Over the 1970s and ’80s, he and his accomplices—including Ghanaian state officials and Nixon’s former attorney general John Mitchell—scammed hundreds of millions of dollars out of thousands of believers. Blay-Miezah lived in luxury, deceiving Philadelphia lawyers, London financiers, and Seoul businessmen alike, all while eluding his FBI pursuers, Henry Kissinger, and Shirley Temple-Black, the then U.S. ambassador to Ghana.
American prosecutors called his scam “one of the most fascinating—and lucrative—in modern history.”
Here, read an excerpt from Anansi’s Gold, which details the beginning of the end for Blay-Meziah—when many of his investors gathered in Guernsey, hoping for the long-awaited, elusive payout of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Guernsey,” said the flight attendant as the tiny plane descended over a patchwork of brown-green fields and coastline. The Oman Ghana Trust Fund had come to the Channel Islands.
The investors trooped across the tarmac into the airport, carrying suitcases and wrapped in trench coats, wearing looks of grim determination. Guernsey was cold, wet, and miserable, and so were they. They had been told that the Trust Fund would finally be paying out, but the small group of Ghanaian, South Korean, American, and British supporters was subdued. It had been years, and there was none of the excitement of previous trips.
The tiny island of Guernsey, marooned in the English Channel off the coast of France, had long been a center of offshore banking and a favored resort for American grifters. Phil Wilson, a con man from St. Louis, ran the Bank of Sark on Guernsey in the 1960s. The operation was, in its entirety, “a mail-drop and a Telex machine run by a barmaid.” It made Wilson millions.
Blay-Miezah had flown in ahead of the investors and was situated in a suite at La Grande Mare, a relatively new hotel on the west coast. Mary Lou Valinote, Blay-Miezah’s secretary from Philadelphia, had also landed earlier. Now, she ushered new arrivals through a set of white double doors and into the reception room of Blay-Miezah’s suite, where they all settled in on overstuffed sofas. New Jersey businessman Walter Hajduk squabbled with Blay-Miezah’s “bagman” Peter Rigby. E.D.M. Stephens, the police officer sent by the Ghanaian government to monitor Blay-Miezah’s overseas travels, drank milky tea. Athlete Kim Chung Han, part of Blay-Miezah’s entourage, translated for the South Korean investors.
In a second, smaller sitting room, Blay-Miezah, dressed casually in a red-patterned shirt and light slacks (appropriate for a seaside golf resort), welcomed his guests—almost every one of them dressed in sober, dark wool suits. He gave them the Ghanaian national handshake: a shake then a click. “That’s it,” he showed Ian Reed, a British investor who owned a construction company. The investors would spend most of the brief trip in their suites gossiping, or wandering around the island in the rain, waiting for something to happen.
Although he spent a great deal of his time living in hotels, Blay-Miezah hated hotel food. (He made an exception for the cakes.) So he traveled with his chef, who brought ingredients straight from Ghana and often cooked only for him. This time the chef had brought garden eggs and akrantie. Stephens remembered the chef taking over the hotel kitchen in Guernsey to cook: sometimes he made rice, sometimes he made fufu and soup. One day the chef prepared the akrantie soup, keeping the wild game and spices at a rolling boil for almost an hour.
“The staff freaked out,” Stephens said. It was more aromatic than the food ordinarily found in a Channel Islands hotel kitchen. “They ended up opening all the windows,” he said. “They didn’t complain, though. Blay-Miezah was spending too much money. If they complained, there’d be trouble.”
Soon—sooner than usual—the word came from Blay-Miezah: the money was still locked up. There would be another delay. Blay-Miezah had his Louis Vuitton trunks packed again and headed back to London. The investors straggled after him. “It’s become very awkward,” one complained.
Blay-Miezah, as usual, had not explained much about what had gone wrong. On the way back to London, the investors filled in the rest with wild speculation. Blay-Miezah was a financial wizard, they all agreed, so the fault must have lain with some arcane banking rule or other.
Reed was under the impression that the funds had been trapped in five banks for decades now. Actually, it used to be sixteen banks, Hajduk interjected, as they drove back into central London from Heathrow Airport. “Now these sixteen banks, if you take twenty-seven billion, eight hundred, that means that each of these banks had a billion and a half,” he said. Then the money was transferred to five banks. “The five banks that have it now, of which Butterworth is one, in Bermuda—and nobody even ever heard of Butterworth—that’s the government’s bank,” he said, confusing an American brand of high-fructose corn syrup and the Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son, based in Hamilton, Bermuda: “The banks also needed a sweetener.” The banks that held the Trust Fund money had lent it out, he theorized, and were struggling to recover it. So the investors would have to wait. “Now it’s fifty bank days, that’s seventy-some days,” counting weekends.
Reed was not sure he could wait that long. “We’re in a lot of shit now,” he said, his accent lapsing into full Cockney as he got more agitated. He was worried about making payroll. “We haven’t got a credit card left that we can use.”
“You do what you want to do,” Hajduk replied. “I don’t even care.”
Investigators on three continents were looking into Blay-Miezah and his American business partner Robert Ellis. And investors were increasingly willing to talk to them. In a courtroom in Philadelphia, those investigations would come together and reveal the true scale of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund. It would be so deeply damaging that by the time the court hearing was over, Blay-Miezah would disavow Ellis. Years earlier, Ellis had gotten Blay-Miezah out of jail, and their friendship had powered one of the largest frauds of the twentieth century. Now, though, it was every con man for himself.
On April 8, 1987, Judge Lynne Abraham’s courtroom was again packed. Ellis and his lawyer, Anthony DeFino, faced the two prosecutors, Joseph Casey and William Wolf. Behind them, investors filled almost every seat in the court. Judge Abraham had studied African history in college, and she knew enough about it to see right through Ellis’s stories. “This case,” said Judge Abraham, “is one of the most fascinating and complex legal matters that I have ever seen.” Depending on whose version of Ghana’s history you believed, the judge later wrote, “President Nkrumah was either the greatest benefactor or the worst thief in the recorded history of that nation.”
For the investors, it had started with a story: about President Kwame Nkrumah and Ghana’s wealth, and John Ackah Blay-Miezah, the Trust Fund’s sole beneficiary, and how “a lot of money was needed to maintain Dr Blay-Miezah” until the Trust Fund paid off.
That story was about to fall apart.
From Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World by Yepoka Yeebo, on sale August 1st from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Yepoka Yeebo. All rights reserved.
Yepoka Yeebo is a British-Ghanaian journalist whose work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, the Guardian, Quartz, and many other publications, and she has been interviewed on PRI’s The World and NPR’s All Things Considered. A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and the University of London, she divides her time between London, UK, and Accra, Ghana. Anansi’s Gold is her first boo